The best coverage money can buy? New Philly newspaper owners are old hands at exchanging money for influence


It had to have been a weird scene Monday at the headquarters of Philadelphia's two daily newspapers when some of the region's biggest political money men — frequent targets of some of the journalists' aggressive coverage — showed up to tell reporters they now own the place.

The sale of the Philadelphia Media Network, the corporation that owns the Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, is another sign of the continuing financial struggles of daily newspapers, and it raises questions about how much independent reporting about political influence will be possible in the nation's fifth biggest city. The group that purchased the two big Philadelphia dailies — put together by former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, a political money magnet who dropped out as an active member when his presence began to draw unwelcome media attention — is a who's who of deep-pocketed political players. Concern about the potential for meddling is so high that the six new owners signed a public non-interference pledge that, according to the website operated by the two Philadelphia newspapers, was drawn up by top editors of both organizations. Already, considerable skepticism is being expressed about how likely they are to live up to the deal.

It's easy to see why they editors are worried. Not only did publisher Gregory Osberg — who is being kept on by the new owners — try to censor the coverage of the sale, but the members of the new ownership group are accustomed to living large in the influence arena. Some of Sunlight's findings:

George Norcross III

Described in a recent Camden Courier-Post profile as "the last of the old guard political bosses," Norcross heads a politically active family that has given more than $653,000 in campaign contributions, according to records compiled from Sunlight's Influence Explorer. The brother of New Jersey state Sen. Donald Norcross, Norcross is involved in a controversial effort to create a university medical complex in Camden, just across the river from Philadelphia, that has come in for scathing coverage from the newspaper he now owns

Now the executive director of Connor Strong and Buckelew, an insurance brokerage, Norcross formerly was a senior manager at Commerce Bancorp, which gave more than $850,000 to politicians, most of them in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before being acquired in 2007 by TD Bank.

In one respect, Norcross might be said to be perfectly suited for his new role: The Courier-Post profile said that in tapes in a 2005 bribery case that was later dismissed, Norcross came across as "bare-knuckled and foul-mouthed. . . capable of intense anger." Sounds perfect for a newsroom.

Lewis Katz

The one-time principal owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Katz' investment portfolio has also included the National Hockey League's New Jersey Devils and Major League Baseball's New York Yankees. A graduate of Philadelphia's Temple University — where he was a classmate of comedian Bill Cosby — he struck it rick turning around Kinney Systems, a nationwide parking company.  

Data from Influence Explorer shows that Katz has given nearly $339,000 in to candidates for state and federal office, most of them Democrats. His law firm also has been generous to Democrats. Katz and his daughter were party of an investor group that tried to build a casino in downtown Philadelphia but recently was shot down by a Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court. 

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest

Lenfest made a fortune in cable television. He and his family members, who run a consortium of foundations outside of Philadelphia, have given some $1.8 million to candidates for federal and state office, data from Influence Explorer shows. Unlike some of the other new newspaper owners, Lenfest has spread his wealth more evenly among Democrats and Republicans.

His son, Chase, is chairman of Lenfest Media, and reportedly bought the most expensive condo ever sold in Philadelphia

Kris Singh

Singh, the president of Holtec International, an energy company that specializes in the development of technology to store waste from nuclear power plants. Influence Explorer shows that the company paid a firm headed by ex-New Jersey Rep. Jim Saxton $60,000 to lobby on energy and nuclear issues. Singh has given only a handful of political donations so far, mostly to Republicans. His largest contribution so far: $3,500 to the campaign of South Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite. The Palmetto State is also being touted by some of its Republican pols as a potential storage facility for spent fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants.

The other two members of the ownership group, William Hankowsky and Joseph Buckelew, give mostly to Republicans. A business partner of Norcross, Buckelew has made most of his political donations inside New Jersey. Hankowsky is chairman of Liberty Property Trust, a real estate concern whose employees have given more than $273,000 to politicians and political action committees.